Promoting the Health and Well-Being of Families During Difficult
Supporting Families Following a Disaster, An Overview
Lynne M. Borden
Extension Specialist and Associate Professor,
The University of Arizona, Norton School of Family and Consumer
The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide a better understanding
of a disaster and the impact it may have on families. The
other fact sheets of this series will discuss general stress
and coping skills and ways families can cope with specific
stresses that are often associated with disasters, such as
health, financial, family, interpersonal, and psychological
stress. A disaster is an event that:
- Involves the destruction of property, injury, and/or
loss of life
- Has an identifiable beginning and end
- Adversely affects a relatively large group of people
- Is "public" and shared by members of more than
- Is out of the realm of ordinary experience
- Is psychologically traumatic enough to induce distress
in almost anyone, regardless of previous condition or experience
How Disasters Affect Families
To understand disasters, it helps to consider the types that
exist, the duration of the disaster, and whether the disaster
is natural or human-made. Each of these factors greatly influences
the degree of stress that is felt within a family.
Disasters may be natural or human-made. Natural disasters
are caused by forces of nature, such as floods, fires, hurricanes,
or earthquakes. They can do minimal damage and affect a small
number of people, or they can be catastrophic and create monumental
damage, affect the lives of tens of thousands of people, and
disrupt the lives of entire communities (American Academy
of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters, 1995). It is important
to understand that natural disasters can be either immediate
(as with a tornado) or on going (as with a drought). Human-made
disasters, such as vehicle accidents, war, and terrorist attacks,
create a different set of challenges for families and often
create greater distress than natural disasters (Yule, 1993).
Individuals and families perceive these events as involving
someone or something (e.g., government, terrorists, business)
that is to blame.
The type of disaster, duration, intensity, amount of destruction,
and the duration of displacement can also greatly influence
the lives of families. Research suggests that the severity
of the experience is related to overall levels of adverse
mental health effects (Yule, 1993).
Understanding the experience of families living with disaster
also requires considering the family and the community context,
including circumstances prior to, during, and after the disaster.
The National Institute of Mental Health (1983) suggests that
assessment of the effects of a disaster requires considering
all phases of the disaster.
- Predisaster - community, family, and individual conditions
prior to disaster
- Warning - media gives word of the impending disaster
- Threat - immediately precedes the actual impact
- Postdisaster - survivors take inventory of events
- Rescue phase - survivors and emergency workers join to
save those affected by the disaster
- Remediation - the Red Cross, insurance adjusters, Federal
Government, and local relief efforts take action
- Recovery period - physical structures are rebuilt, and
families and individuals begin to cope
Understanding each phase of the disaster is important when
working with families and their communities. It is also important
to consider the impact of the disaster on the community. The
American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters (1995)
notes that each disaster is different depending on its scope
and intensity, and on characteristics of the community, family,
and individual. It suggests that the effect of disasters on
communities may include
- destruction of infrastructure
- absence of electricity, sanitation, and potable water
- destruction of physical contact with the outside world
(e.g., roadways, phones, and bridges)
- vulnerability and exploitation due to disaster and media
- potential recurrence
Understanding the stages of a disaster provides information
that can be very useful when working with families because
disasters often have surprisingly long-term consequences for
families. Families may find that their normal routines have
been completely altered. Parents may also be forced to address
complex issues, including the loss of income or family farm.
Parents may find it necessary to find new employment. It may
even be necessary for parents or the entire family to move
to a different city in order to find employment. A nonworking
parent may have to return to work in order to assist with
the economic hardships created by the disaster. Young people
may find that they are sent to live with relatives until the
damage from the disaster is repaired.
Changes such as these require decisions that are difficult
and often emotionally painful for all members of the family.
Moreover, these changes often result in a decrease in time
spent with children to provide much needed emotional support.
Given the complexity and serious ramifications of these decisions
to each family member, it is understandable that the family
system may no longer be able to function as it did previously
(Gordon, Farberow, & Madia, 1999). It is important to
recognize that these events may cause changes in the family
system that persist long after the disaster has subsided.
These changes within the family may include
- Parental disorganization or dysfunction
- Increased alcohol or drug use by a family member
- Increased conflict or violent behavior between family
members, or between family and others
- Relocation (including school changes)
- Job loss
- Decreased physical and emotional availability of parents
- Loss of children's social networks or the opportunity
to participate in normal routines and activities (American
Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters, 1995; Ebata
& Borden, 1995)
Every year, families across the United States, including
many farm families, find themselves in the difficult position
of dealing with the ramifications of an ongoing natural disaster
(drought), an immediate natural disaster (tornado, hurricane),
or a human-made disaster (vehicle accident). Regardless of
the type or duration of the disaster, such unforeseen events
create a crisis for families. Families affected by disaster
are forced to cope with the immediate disaster, and its long-term
effects, in addition to the typical daily stressors faced
by all families.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): FEMA provides
many programs, courses, and materials to support emergency
preparedness and response for emergency personnel as well
as the general public. http://www.fema.gov/
EDEN Disaster Network: The Extension Disaster Education Network
(EDEN) links Extension educators from across the U.S. and
various disciplines, enabling them to use and share resources
to reduce the impact of disasters. From food safety to field
safety, from the physical to the psychological, and from governmental
process to community development, EDEN has resources you can
American Red Cross: Each year, the American Red Cross responds
immediately to more than 67,000 disasters, including house
or apartment fires (the majority of disaster responses), hurricanes,
floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills,
transportation accidents, explosions, and other natural and
man-made disasters. When a disaster threatens or strikes,
the Red Cross provides shelter, food, and health and mental
health services to address basic human needs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): This site
is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
providing timely information about health issues.
United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):
These sites provide information regarding such topics as disaster
relief and safety, and the location of HHS offices.
HHS for Kids: http://hhs.gov/kids/
The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life
Sciences Extension: This Extension website is dedicated to
bringing research-based information (about families, health,
etc.) into communities to help people improve their lives.
North Carolina State University: This Extension website offers
consumer education regarding such topics as disaster safety,
family relationships, and community and rural development.
Family Works: The University of Illinois Extension has designed
a website to provide "strategies to build stronger families.
It includes information about such topics as anger, discipline,
Supporting Families Following a Disaster: The University
of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative
Extension has designed this series of fact sheets covering
special needs of families during difficult times. http://ag.arizona.edu/fcs/supporting_families/
American Academy of Pediatrics Work Group on Disasters. (1995).
Psychological Issues for Children in Disasters: A Guide for
the Primary Care Physician. Washington D. C.: National Mental
Health Services Exchange Network.
Ebata, A. T., Borden, L. M. (1995). Children, stress and
natural disasters: A guide for teachers and school activities
for children. Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
Gordon, N. S., Farberow, N. L., & Maida, C. A. (1999).
Children & disasters. Philadelphia, PA: Burnner/Mazel.
Saylor, D. F. (1993). Children and disasters: Clinical and
research issues. In D. F. Saylor (Ed). Children and disasters.
New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Yule, W. (1993). Technology-Related disasters. In D. F. Saylor
(Ed). Children and disasters. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
La Greca, A. M., Silverman, W. K., Vernberg, E. M., &
Roberts M. C. (2002). Helping children cope with disasters
and terrorism. Washington, D. C.: American National Institute
of Mental Health. (1983).